CAIRO — Egyptian security forces seized near the Libyan border on Thursday dozens of heavy weapons allegedly bound for the Sinai Peninsula to stir up trouble ahead of upcoming presidential elections, a police official said.
Authorities uncovered the munitions – including 40 surface-to-surface missiles, 17 rocket-propelled grenade launchers, mortar rounds, automatic rifles and around 10,000 artillery shells – in three vehicles near the Mediterranean resort city of Marsa Matrouh, some 430 kilometers (270 miles) northwest of Cairo, the official said.
Three Egyptian Bedouin smugglers were arrested, the official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media. Two of the men were from the Egyptian town of Rafah on the border with the Gaza Strip.
The official said the men claimed they were transporting the weapons to Egypt's Sinai Peninsula to use "against army and police forces securing the borders to create chaos before presidential elections."
Egypt's first presidential vote since last year's uprising that ousted longtime leader Hosni Mubarak is scheduled for May 23-24.
The confiscated weapons most likely came from Libya, which has become a key source of illicit arms since the civil war there last year, the official said.
During the eight-month conflict that led to the toppling and killing of Moammar Gadhafi, Libyan citizens-turned-fighters stormed weapons storehouses and military camps to arm themselves, and the country is awash in everything from machine guns to mortars.
A flood of weapons from Libya has added to security concerns in Egypt, where police have yet to fully return to the nation's streets since disappearing early in last year's uprising.
Authorities fear the weapons most often fall into the hands of Islamist militants in Sinai who have moved swiftly to exploit the security void, carrying out almost daily attacks on security forces. They enjoy near complete control over parts of border towns like Rafah. Elsewhere in Sinai, they have taken advantage of long-standing grievances by the area's Bedouin inhabitants over services and development to recruit and whip up anti-government sentiment.
In February last year, several militant groups joined forces in Sinai and nine months later declared in messages posted on militant websites the creation of an Islamic emirate in Sinai and stated their allegiance to al-Qaida.
Israeli officials also have expressed concerns about looted weapons from Libya, saying that munitions, including longer-range Scud missiles, are being smuggled from there through Sinai and into the Gaza Strip.
In April, two rockets believed to have been smuggled from Libya were fired from Egypt's Sinai desert toward the Israeli resort town of Eilat. No one was hurt and Egypt denied that the rockets were fired from its territory.